As most of you know, I am a writer. Not just like a “hey look at my blog” writer or even an “I have a manuscript but I cannot get it out there” writer. I’m not a writer like Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter is a writer. I am a real writer.
I work for a small town newspaper. I find that there seem to be two schools of thought on this career:
1 – It’s a weekly, six page paper that only a 3,000 people (max) read a week, it’s hardly a real journalism job.
2 – It’s old-fashioned story telling and digging up the truth, it’s as honest a journalism job as you can find.
You can imagine which of those ideals I think applies to my job.
Not too long ago, a friend of a friend on the facepage ripped me apart for my job, when I mentioned I was writing an obituary. He scoffed at me, “Oh, way to be on the OBIT desk… yeah, I did that 20 years ago… I’m sure you’ll go far.” And I was fairly stunned by the ignorance. For one thing, I was a bit taken by his overt elitism that he was simply better than the people who write obituaries. And for another thing, the obituary I was writing was for a woman named Lenore Weiss. Lenore had, with her husband John, personally rehabbed several roadside attractions along Historic Route 66 in Illinois. This woman and her husband had been credited with increasing tourism in more rural parts of Illinois that sit along the famous highway, and they had funded multiple projects, saved historic sites, got several places placed on the National Register of Historic Places, helped build a museum in Pontiac, Illinois (which is a really cool museum) and helped to create more than one annual festival along the road. She did a lot of this while she was riddled with cancer. I was not too good to write about her. If anything, I can only wonder if I did her justice.
Needless to say, that facepage guy blocked me after I said all that to him. Whatever. That’s how elitism works, I guess.
Anyway, while there is an obvious fun side to writing for a small town newspaper, it is still a job I take quite seriously. When I was a kid, I would occasionally sneak out of my room to go downstairs or into my parents bedroom to watch the 10 o’clock news. While other kids had dreams of being singers and actors and firemen and athletes, I wanted to be Mary Ann Childers. I used to record my own newscasts on my tape recorder, complete with news, sports, weather and commercials. I had several spots written for my own product:
“Toppy. The Yellow Sponge. For all the times you need it.”
It even had a song… one that I am sure is now stuck in my sister Amy’s head, as I did not know better than to not sing it to her. She may have starred in a commercial or two. Come to think of it, it seems that I may have created Sponge Bob without realizing it.
Anyway, this was always what I wanted to do.
In college I was an anchor on the college TV station, and even though I did well, I was not really all that comfortable in front of the camera. So when I went to work in TV, I was a producer and a newswriter. Then one day, as happens to some of the best of us, I got canned. Three months pregnant and irritated with the business at the time, I withdrew from news and worked at other things, including being a stay at home mom, until one day the Weekly Shopper showed up in the mail with an advertisement: Reporter Needed.
And so I made my return to news.
There is a pretty distinct difference in the style of writing you use for print media and broadcast media, and the transition — aided by the fact that I hadn’t stepped foot in a newsroom in six years — was a little rocky for me at first. But I got over it and started getting back into the swing of writing the news. As I suspect is typical of most reporters, I think I ask lots of good questions, but usually come up with that absolutely fabulous, must-ask zinger about 30 seconds after the person I am interviewing has driven off in their car. That always sucks. But I am fair, and I am super comfortable with the weekly newspaper and it’s extended deadline and the way that I can really dig in and get to know not just one or two local players, but nearly all of them. And as I did back in those days when I watched a young Mary Ann Childers work her magic at WLS-Channel 7, I take the job of the press very seriously.
I think most people misunderstand the First Amendment, at least in part. The First Amendment doesn’t say that I can print whatever I want or you can say whatever you want or just do whatever you want regarding any of its other freedoms (religion, assembly and petition the government, in case you don’t know them). The First Amendment says that the government cannot stop you from exercising those rights. So after what happened to me this week, I heard some “Freedom of the Press” type remarks from folks in the town where I write.
What happened was, at a forum for local candidates running for City Council, when I started to ask a question, I was shut down. Two of the candidates are not fond of me. One of them accused me of never writing anything positive about the town. The other suggested I shouldn’t be asking at all, as I am not a resident, despite the fact that I write the local paper for that town.
These people did not infringe on my First Amendment rights. But they did attempt to censor the press, which is not exactly the same thing. They are two private individuals who essentially told me to shut up, not the government trying to stop me from doing my job.
But, even with those definitions sorted out, I still feel like a free press was assaulted by these two candidates, even if ever so slightly. So, I did something I have never done. I wrote a commentary. Here are my favorite parts, as they appear in this week’s edition:
“This is one of the many duties of a free press – to hold those who wish to speak for the people accountable before the public decides to give them the authority to take office. When you pick and choose who can ask what your intentions based on geography, you are censoring the press. You are taking away the public’s right to hear the answer to a question not because you dislike the question, but because you disapprove of the person asking it.”
“It is my job to ask tough questions. The candidates can choose not to answer these questions if they feel they are inappropriate. It’s not the job of the candidates to decide that the questions are not worth asking. It is the job of the public to decide if the answers are worth hearing.”
Then I quoted Thomas Jefferson:
“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
These ideals are very important to me. I know I am just a small time newspaper reporter. More importantly, I believe I will always be a small time newspaper reporter. I’m not winning any major awards, I’m not getting woo-ed by major news outlets. Working the news desk where Mary Ann Childers once worked will always just remain a dream. This is my job, and I am good at it.
But my duty to find truth and inform the public is no less important than that of Brian Williams or Dan Rather or Katie Couric. I am just as bound to report fairly and completely as are the multitudes of talking heads on local news and cable outlets across the country. Sometimes, I think more so. Because if we don’t hold the people closest to us accountable, then we are destined to fail when it comes to those who hold a higher office.
So thanks for the inspiration, Mary Ann. And to all the bigger city journalists and world-wide correspondents, please keep asking the questions that need to be asked. I’ll be holding the fort down here at the local paper.